A recent report by a consultant hired to look at the local arts scene started with "a scan" of "the creative ecosystem" of Ulster County and its environs. A creative ecosystem, the report summary explained, consisted of the interrelationship among three elements: creative artists, their audience or market, and the infrastructure that supported the artists and bought their work to the public.
Kingston-based Judy Levine said she paid for the scan in order to help realize her longstanding hopes for Ulster County's cultural potential. A former Dutchess County Arts Council (DCAC) director who oversaw that institution's management of Ulster County arts financing in the early years after its own arts council fell into inactivity, Levine came into some money this past year. She has used it to set up the Community Creativity Foundation (CCF), whose mission is to foster greater collaborative efforts between the county's myriad arts organizations. She is at present the foundation's sole employee.
Under Levine's auspices, a presentation by Harvey Seifter of Americans for the Arts, touted as the nation's leading nonprofit organization for advancing the efficiency of arts organizations in the nation, was given to a score of top arts administrators from Ulster, Dutchess, Orange, Columbia and Greene counties in April at the Dutchess County Arts Council.
Levine's current push, with details still in flux, is to bring together Ulster's existing arts organizations in a series of meet-and-greet gatherings this summer in Woodstock, Ellenville and New Paltz.
"The arts community is very fragmented," Levine said. "By pulling it together, that community will gain in influence and power. I believe the role of the arts in the community is key. Culture is much more than a form of intellectual entertainment, but a major common denominator amongst people. It's a means of backing up the forward-thinking elements of our society and our economy. It's a way of developing the world of possibility."
Levine's CCF start-up, and its mission, comes as both a culmination of efforts to raise the profile and organizational acumen of Ulster County's arts scene, and a sign that those efforts are shifting. New Paltz county legislator Susan Zimet, chairperson of the Ulster County Legislature's committee responsible for educational, cultural and tourism activities, has been the political figure most responsible for expanding the county government's support for the arts.
In March, the Ulster County Legislature announced a new Ulster County Cultural Regrant Fund of $47,500 for the current year dedicated to "capacity building and strategic collaborations within the cultural community in Ulster County." Funds were provided by the legislature, with administrative services by the Dutchess County Arts Council, which has also administered New York State arts funding for Ulster County over the past 20 years.
County deputy planning director Jennifer Schwartz and Diane DeChillio are the only two remaining board members of the Ulster County Arts Council. Schwartz said that entity's last bona-fide director, music manager and Vassar employee Sherri Brittain, never had the time to push the arts council where it needed to go, and never had a board that could give enough to solidify its own survival. Every New York State county south of Ulster and Dutchess has its own county arts council. Some, like Schwartz, believe that the Dutchess County Arts Council could never truly "know" the west bank of the Hudson.
"This is a very itchy issue for us on a lot of levels," conceded Dutchess County Arts Council Executive Director Benjamin Krevolin. His entity was already doling out money to Ulster organizations and artists at a maximum level, he said. "All our activities there are robust and operating well, and involve Ulster County residents at all levels. Many of my fellow board members live across the river or own businesses there. Some specific panels, for Arts in Education as an example, are made up solely of Ulsterites .... So what's the problem? If it ain't broke, as they say, why fix it?"
Bringing more to the table
"The tapestry of arts organizations, service organizations, funders, civic partnerships, work spaces and access to capital in and around Ulster County is fragile," wrote Harvey Seifter in his "Creative Ecosystem of Ulster County, NY and Environs." "Both artists and organizations are confronted by a strikingly slender support base. It manifests itself in overall sector-wide undercapitalization and a scarcity of programmatic financial resources. Gaps in leadership development opportunities, advocacy and professional services are wide and numerous,"
Seifter was positive about the new joint booking work between the Poughkeepsie-based Bardavon Theater and Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston, the cluster of DCAC-coordinated Art Along The Hudson Saturday openings, and recent gains being made in Woodstock since its various arts organizations started meeting regularly under the auspices of the new Woodstock Arts Consortium.
Under a listing of the region's cultural strengths and opportunities, Seifter - who admitted never having spent time in the region before his recent assignment - listed a diversity of artists, a good mix of educational institutions, proximity to New York City, and the Dutchess County Arts Council for "being among the nation's best-run such organizations."
According to executive director Krevolin, DCAC's annual budget is close to $750,000 (including perhaps $100,000 in pass-through money to other organizations). Roughly a third comes from the state (mostly the state arts council), roughly a third from county government, and the largest third from foundations, events and individuals.
Compare that largesse to Ulster County's practically non-existent budget. Seifter's reference to Ulster's "strikingly slender support base" was, if anything, a tactful appraisal.
Seifter and Levine suggested aiming towards a new strengthened servicing of the Ulster County cultural scene using methods being employed by the Dutchess/Ulster Community Foundation, which has leveraged the Dutchess Community Foundation's track record with large foundations such as Millbrook-based Dyson not only to benefit Ulster County causes, but to bring new Kingston-based funders, such as Ulster Savings Bank, to the table in the past year.
Seifter noted a lack of connections among arts organizations, artists and education centers, and between year-round and part-time residents. He said that all the many arts organizations were quite small in terms of the bigger picture he's used to, with no concerted professional development or strong fundraising efforts under way. The result, he said, was an underdeveloped regional identity and a wasting of resources.
Given the difference in resource capacity between Dutchess and Ulster counties, a regional approach involving a larger area may indeed be the more constructive path. Mid-Hudson Pattern for Progress, itself an under-funded regional planning organization, has begun to talk about ways of utilizing culture as a key to regional economic development.
"The natural scale of the creative ecosystem is regional," Seifter wrote, "and it is important to recognize that there are no purely local ways to resolve the deficits identified above or develop a successful creative ecosystem." Bringing resources into constructive alignment "will require approaches that reach beyond any town or county." A coherent regional approach for the Hudson Valley must also take into account the presence and role of New York City, capital of the known arts universe.
As for the struggles of Ulster County's own arts council, Levine said she felt too much effort might not be warranted.
"Trying to reinvigorate the arts council is not a great use of time and energy," she said. "What's better is for someone to provide the services needed and support the existing organizations in serving themselves as an arts community."
Those services, Seifter and Levine said, included the inauguration of better networking opportunities for artists, more advocacy on the part of all the arts, increased technical support for existing organizations, and coordinated marketing efforts.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the iconoclastic Midwestern economist Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption" in explaining how people, particularly people of means, choose to buy some goods because of what these goods reveal about their standing in society rather than because of any intrinsic enjoyment they get from the purchase. The arts-support machine, Veblen claimed, served as a facilitator for social status rather than as a supplier to aesthetic demand.
According to this perspective, arts support doesn't necessarily require much of the presence of artists in the marketing loop. They can be a pervasive if invisible presence. Presumably, artists work with galleries, managers, or venue owners, show up for drinks at parties and openings of shows of their work, and perhaps reluctantly open their workspaces to their very best clients.
For a professional artist, not having an adequate place to sell or display their work can be a huge problem, however. In our urban-oriented society, depending on a country gallery or manager to sell one's work has its weaknesses.
Krevolin said Seifter's survey had found patterns of small arts organizations expending too much of their energy on "nail-biting maintenance." He suggested that it might ultimately make sense for some organizations to be more nimble, and even to close up shop if their functions were being fulfilled by a newer organization.
"There has to be better ways of transferring the energy these organizations need," Krevolin argued. "The important thing is to not let the energy die."
Art and artist are not always separable. For the consumer, simply owning a work of art also does not convey as much status as also knowing the artist. Indeed, some sociologists and organizational theorists maintain that the presence of the arts correlate with a higher level of economic development.
Futurist Richard Florida, for instance, posits the theory that the presence of a so-called "creative class" fosters an open, dynamic, personal and professional environment. This environment, in turn, attracts more creative people, as well as additional businesses and capital. Florida suggests that attracting and retaining high-quality talent is important to localities. It keeps the energy flowing.
In line with Levine's work to set up informal get-togethers between existing arts organizations throughout Ulster County, the major push seems to be to let the Dutchess County Arts Council continue administrating for both counties and focus new organizing efforts to better what's already in place.
"Re-starting an organization that has a lot of failure in its history due to all sorts of issues is not something people can do in their spare time," said Judy Levine. "What we want is for people to get together without being asked to do something for another entity. The importance is to simply get people collaborating."
Levine said she was hoping to announce the successes of her informal get-togethers over the coming months, after the various organizations had had a chance to get to know each other and start talking to each other without agendas, or the scrutiny of the press limelight, for that matter.
"I see it all socially, with people sharing a gallery walk or some other activity to get to know each other," she said. "The idea is to build off of what happened when people came together for Harvey's presentation, or the application seminars for the re-grant program .... People started talking."
Levine was hoping further meetings would evolve after the three regional gatherings around the county. "I think it's going to be a rich summer of activity," she predicted. "I keep thinking in terms of a new slogan: Start with the arts."